A LAND revolution is being planned for Scotland which would see huge swathes of countryside taken from rich private landowners and handed over to ordinary people.

Campaigners - spearheaded by the Scottish Greens - say a law passed to give land to Scottish soldiers returning from the First World War can be repurposed to reverse what they believe is the most inequitable land ownership in the western world.

More than half of Scotland is owned by fewer than 500 people or businesses. Now campaigners want to use the long-forgotten 1919 Land Resettlement (Scotland) Act to even the scales.

Loading article content

The law gives the state powers to purchase land against the will of owners and rent it to ordinary people.

The Scottish Greens, with backing from other reformers, including Labour's Brian Wilson, will campaign in the Holyrood election to bring the Act back to life.

The moves follow the approval of the Land Reform Bill last week, which will create a register of people in control of land in Scotland, make provisions to force land sales if owners block economic development, and set up a Land Commission.HeraldScotland: Writer Andy Wightman

Andy Wightman, pictured, Scottish Greens’ spokesman on Land reform, said: "We will promote a modernised Land Settlement Act that will facilitate the development of smallholdings, community-supported agriculture, community gardens, hutting colonies and community forests - particularly in and around towns but also in rural Scotland."

Current reform legislation is focused on community ownership. Wightman has championed this but believes it has become a "sticking plaster".

He said: "Not everyone wants to be part of a huge community owning a huge area of land - they want to use their own bit of land."

Under the 1919 Act the government can buy land - even forcibly, subject to judicial review - and rent it back to new tenants under very long leases.

Wightman believes councils or the Scottish Government could modernised the 1919 powers to do the same for all sorts of potential tenants across Scotland.

He added: "The Act would not just be for conventional land settlements to provide smallholdings for individuals. It would be for wider public good in agriculture and forestry, community gardens, huts.

Read more: Andy Wightman on slurs comparing Scottish land reforms to atrocities of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe

That, Wightman, says means buy-outs on the outskirts of cities, including in green belts.

He said: "Take the Green Belt of Edinburgh, which is basically just fields of wheat owned by speculators. The Green Belt is a redundant philosophy to try and contain urban sprawl. Owners love the Green Belt: it pushed up land prices.

"My vision would be to use the Green Belt as a food belt, a porous area around cities of farms, smallholdings, forests and lakes and huts that people could cycle out to."

Wightman also believes the legislation - as was its initial intention - could be used to buy farms for those who want to go in to agriculture but can't get land.

He cities a case in Argyll where a small group of potential tenants were unable to find a 100-acre site for a business opportunity in a county with a coastline longer than France's. Wightman said: "That is what economists call market failure."

Eigg: An early community buy-out

HeraldScotland: EYECATCHING IMAGE: Fortunato's award-winning photograph of Eigg and Fortunato.

The Greens are currently pitching for second votes in the Holyrood elections as a party that can target the SNP from the left.

The Greens and other reformers will look at using local government bonds backed by future rents to help ordinary people fund land acquisitions.

Background: The Herald's Highlands correspondent on latest land reform

Brian Wilson, a former Labour Scottish Office minister who championed land reform, backed the idea, saying: "It's an interesting idea which should be pursued if the legislation is still on the statue book...We also shouldn't lose sight of the Act's original purpose which was to acquire land in order to break it up into crofts or small holdings.

There must be a few run-down estates which could be acquired for that purpose at modest cost. That could give rise to a very interesting experiment in rural regeneration."

A spokesman for the landowners organisations, Scottish Land & Estates, said: "Given the ink is not even dry on a radical land reform bill that gives wide ranging rights to communities and tenant farmers we do not wish to comment on this."

Read more: Landowners' fears that reforms could leave taxypayer with £600m bill

Background: How Tories and Liberals nearly a hundred years ago adopted the most radical land reform scheme ever seen in Scotland

Britain, they promised, would be "a land fit for heroes". But first some of the heroes had to get some of the land.

In the grim months after the end of World War One, the coalition government of David Lloyd George introduced what could have been a truly revolutionary piece of legislation.

The state, parliament ruled, should be able to force landlords - including the aristocrats who still stocked the House of Lords - to sell up land to rehome men returning from the trenches.

Picture: Prime Minister David Lloyd George

HeraldScotland: David Lloyd George was behind the introduction of National Insurance.

This was the 1919 Land Resettlement Act. Nearly 100 years later it is still on the statute books, even if it has not been used in half a century.

But scholars still argue over whether the Act worked - or whether it was funded enough to work. One historian said it was a "minor and largely ineffective attempt to deal with the situation", the acute "land hunger" of the day.

Others think it had a bigger impact. 

Its focus was to buy land on Highland estates - then as now largely owned by the super-rich - to create state-owned crofting townships for veterans. Chunks of northern Skye, for example, were resettled.

This, after all, was when men and their families were desperate for land across swathes of Scotland still bearing the scars of the Highland Clearances.

Within five months of the Act becoming law, the funds set up to buy land had run dry. Soldiers were furious, one citing election promises that veterans could not be expected to have capital to buy land on their "king's shilling a day".

The result: illegal land grabs with soldiers marching behind a piper on to property and claiming it, sometimes putting up rough shacks and ploughing the earth.

Picture: The Red flag flying in Glasgow

HeraldScotland:

London, already afraid of the Red Clydeside, and land-seizing Bolsheviks in Russia, panicked and ordered more money. It was never quite enough. Land-raiding peaked in 1923. Men who sized land were removed from waiting lists. By 1930, according to American scholar Leah Leneman, some 2536 new holdings were created. By then, authorities had waved the rules that soldiers be given preferential treatment. But few "heroes" of WWI got land they were fit for.